Recalling that Explorer of the Human HeartMind, William James

Recalling that Explorer of the Human HeartMind, William James January 11, 2020


What is now quickly receding in memory, back in the summer of 2000, Jan, auntie & I moved out to New England where I would serve as senior minister of the First Unitarian Society in Newton, Massachusetts. We would end up spending fourteen years in New England, first there, and later in Providence, Rhode Island.

Not long after we’d settled in, Jan & I drove out to the Cambridge cemetery with flowers for the James boys. James carrying hers for Henry and me carrying mine for William. It took a while but we found the family gravesite, and there gazed on their graves and meditated a bit on their gifts to American, Western, and I don’t think it too much to say, World culture.

As it happens today is William James‘s one hundred and seventy-eighth birthday. So, I feel I have an excuse to muse a little on the person. After all how can you not like a guy who observed “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” Not always consistent in his thinking, maybe of course. Nonetheless he strove for consistency and serious critical inquiry more than most who think about religion.

Or, so it has seemed to me. And, well, still does…

Time has passed and James’ contributions to psychology are increasingly seen in the rear view mirror,  and from that vantage not always kindly. Still, I feel his work really set a course that continues to be important. In fact in many ways I find his religious thinking more useful than Carl Jung’s. Certainly, less given to flights of fancy, more, if you will attempting to be “scientific.” Neither succeeded, as anyone who looks carefully knows. But of the two, James felt consistently to me more in touch with the real…

So, the pragmatist writes “For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute. It becomes an essential organ of our life, performing a function which no other portion of our nature can so successfully fulfill.”

For James this leads to “The transition from tenseness, self-responsibility, and worry, to equanimity, receptivity, and peace, is the most wonderful of all those shiftings of inner equilibrium, those changes of personal centre of energy, which I have analyzed so often; and the chief wonder of it is that it so often comes about, not by doing, but by simply relaxing and throwing the burden down. This abandonment of self-responsibility seems to be the fundamental act in specifically religious, as distinguished from moral practice. It antedates theologies and is independent of philosophies. Mind-cure, theosophy, stoicism, ordinary neurological hygiene, insist on it as emphatically as Christianity does, and it is capable of entering into closest marriage with every speculative creed. Christians who have it strongly live in what is called ‘recollection,’ and are never anxious about the future, nor worry over the outcome of the day. Of Saint Catharine of Genoa it is said that ‘she took cognizance of things, only as they were presented to her in succession, moment by moment.’ To her holy soul, ‘the divine moment was the present moment, . . . and when the present moment was estimated in itself and in its relations, and when the duty that was involved in it was accomplished, it was permitted to pass away as if it had never been, and to give way to the facts and duties of the moment which came after.’ Hinduism, mind-cure, and theosophy all lay great emphasis upon this concentration of the consciousness upon the moment at hand.”

Maybe he doesn’t cross over to the holy land. I don’t think so, myself. But without a doubt in my mind, to my heart, he guided many people through the wasteland, and in his maturity stands on that ledge looking across the river to the sacred. Pointing in a direction, thanks to him, a fair number of whom have looked at that farther shore, and then crossed over…

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